Category Archives: Thinking about feeling

Learning to like myself

For most of my life, I’ve not much liked myself. I mistrust my judgement and my motives. I feel I have to justify my choices. I never feel like I’m doing enough, giving enough and that alongside this I am a mostly inconvenient nuisance. Worrying about what I cost financially goes back a long way. Aged eleven I started keeping a diary because it helped me ascertain whether I could justify my existence on a day to day basis. I worry about being fake and fraudulent and making too much fuss and not being stoical enough and not working hard enough. I don’t like my face or my body shape either and there are lots of ways in which my body is a difficult place to be.

(And I wonder, when I share things like this if anyone is going to have a go at me for being attention seeking, or feeling sorry for myself, or not trying harder to be positive… because that all happens.)

Just in this last year or so, I’ve started having small windows of something entirely different. Usually it’s prompted by something I’ve done that has demonstrably gone well. I get bursts of time when I think I’m a decent person and that it is possible to enjoy being me. It is surprising, and the impact in terms of my feelings of wellbeing is dramatic. It also gives me some sense of what it might be like to go round feeling like a good person who is entitled to exist and be happy.

Depression has been with me for a long time. It may be with me for the rest of my life. But, these windows of getting to feel ok are dramatic and remarkable things. I really had no idea that was available. Prior to experiencing it, I did not imagine it existed, and I did not know that I was not even seeing that could be a thing. If I can do it for a few hours here and there, perhaps I can do more of it. Perhaps I can get to a place of not mostly feeling bad about who and how I am. Perhaps I can do enough things I can feel that good about that the impact continues for longer. I don’t know, but it feels worth trying.


Self Care and Relationships

My guess is that if you have good self esteem and a sense of self worth, then you’ll be more confident about when to step away from people. I’ve been paying attention to my own processes around this in recent weeks and have noticed some patterns I thought it might be helpful to share.

If something goes wrong and I express distress, there’s a small window where things can be ok. If the other person comes back with care and concern then I can work things through and it’s usually fine. Now, if I was watching a friend in this situation, and they expressed distress and the person who had caused it doubled down on them, I would have no qualms saying ‘get out of there, this person does not have your best interests at heart’. When it’s me, other things happen.

I think it’s my fault. I think I’ve done something wrong and brought it upon myself. I think it’s fair and deserved. Probably I wasn’t trying hard enough or giving enough. I should make more effort to be patient, generous, accommodating and forgiving. So when someone hurts me, if they don’t back off from that quickly I can end up trying harder to be nicer to them and feeling like a total failure while I’m doing it. I’ve got to the point where I can see myself doing it and I know it’s not good for me, but I still can’t stop the thoughts that come.

I find it difficult to step away from people. Even when I know they are harming me, a feeling of guilt can stay with me for years afterwards. I’m working on this. There are a lot of unhelpful places my brain goes when people double down on hurting me. It builds my expectation that any expression of distress on my part will be met with further punishment. I fight against feeling that people will hate me, blame me and want to knock me down for daring to say ‘ouch’. I find it really hard to trust people not to hate me.

Even when I’m not triggered into all the places this takes me, it remains in the mix. I’ve got to trust a person a great deal to express distress to them. I’ve got to value a person a great deal to give them the opportunity to double down on me. When it’s people I barely know, I just slink off – because I can manage that much self care, and the stress of raising discomfort with people is high.

When people respond to distress by telling me why it’s my fault, or justifying it, that sends me off to some really dark places. It brings up other, older, nastier hurts that I was told were my fault, one way or another. I can become unable to escape from those memories in the short term. Classic PTSD triggering.

I want to be someone who is reliably kind, patient and generous. I want to forgive everyone’s mistakes and shortcomings and I feel a deep sense of obligation to be nice to people who hurt me. I also know that this way lies madness, in a rather literal sense. I know that if I stay in there for too long with someone who keeps hurting me, I will end up in serious trouble. Self care means saying no to people around this stuff. If I put my own comfort first, saying no the first time someone doesn’t respond in the way I need them to would be the way to go. But the weight of the guilt is terrible.

I have a hard time accepting that I cannot be a good and kind friend to a person who triggers me and makes me ill. I feel like a failure every time I run into that. I feel like they are entitled to more from me. Even though I don’t have that to give. I want the people who care if I am hurt, and I want to feel entitled to only really deal with people who care about me, and not to feel obliged to care about who don’t reciprocate, but there’s a lot of old training to deal with here and it will take time.


Adventures in consent

I’ve been thinking a lot in the last year or so about how to do consent more effectively.

One of the features of rape culture is the idea that it’s humiliating and painful for a man to get a ‘no’ from a woman, and that therefore it might be preferable not to ask. This of course is no kind of real consent. Inferred consent doesn’t mean someone consented. Pushy approaches can leave the person on the other end feeling threatened and that it is safer to go along than to resist. Rape can often be survived, murder less so. Ignoring the need for consent sends a clear message that this is not a safe situation.

One of my approaches to this has been to get into conversations with people about how we do, or do not do touch. I’m not reliably good around physical affection. I hate being touched unexpectedly by most people, and the vast majority of people I don’t want to touch at all. But, people I really like, I want to be able to be affectionate with. So I talk about it. That’s been going really well.

There have been a few people in the past who responded badly to my talking about it – guys who insisted that they kiss everyone and it should therefore be fine, and who weren’t willing to try and not do that to me even though it was causing panic attacks. It took me a while to truly realise I don’t have to accept that. I’ve had far more really brilliant conversations about boundaries and history, and it hasn’t been all about my own limitations, either.

In the last year or so, I’ve entered into situations repeatedly where I’ve been the one offering, and I’ve offered on the understanding that ‘no’ might be what came back. Is it humiliating? No, it is not. These are people I really care about, who for various reasons aren’t always in a place to say yes to a hug, or a kiss on the cheek. These are people whose comfort is more important to me than whether they say yes to me. One of the things I’ve learned from this is that making it totally safe to say ‘no’ creates an intimacy of its own. That can be a very rich and beautiful experience. It can be powerful, in a good sort of way, to offer and be turned down, and to be fine with that.

If you’ve felt unsafe, if your ‘no’ was unheard or there was never even space for it, this more deliberate space to say no, is needed, and good. Room to say no is a gift to offer someone whose ‘no’ has been ignored. Coming at this as someone who has had their ‘no’ ignored in all kinds of ways, offering someone else the freedom to say no also feels powerful. I find when I feel I can say no, I am more likely to eventually say yes. Nothing kills my fondness for a person like being forced into physical contact. Nothing feeds the warmth and respect I feel for a person like being able to talk this all through and agree where the edges are.


Understanding the mechanics

One of my key coping mechanisms is to try and understand how things work for me. It’s the approach I take any time I’m digging into areas of dysfunction. Why am I like this? How did I get here? Why am I responding in these ways? What can be changed? Once I’ve figured the mechanisms for something, I often blog about it in the hopes someone else will find that useful.

I’ve used these approaches to unpick beliefs and assumptions. I’ve dealt to some degree with an abuse legacy this way. I’ve pulled myself out of patterns of self-harm and self hate. It’s not easy work, but it definitely gets stuff done.

I try it with my body issues too, with varying degrees of effect. By experimenting on myself and paying attention, I’ve identified that I need to keep an eye on my iodine intake. I need to watch for electrolytes when my gut packs up. My gut packs up less often now I’m vegetarian – being an omnivore didn’t suit me. I can’t eat a lot of refined grains or my gut malfunctions. I can’t ingest cloves. I’ve got coping mechanisms in place for my cranky lymphs, and for the things that leave my body stiff and sore. So long as I pay careful attention to a lot of different factors I can, for much of the time, feel more in control of myself.

And then there are days like today, when many of the things that can go wrong have gone wrong. I can’t pin down any triggers. There are problems with conflicting solutions. I’m exhausted and need to rest. My lymphs are cranky and I need to get on the trampoline. My muscles are painfully sore anyway. I’ve got crazy hormone stuff going on. All of this has mental health implications. There’s no winning here.

I go round this repeatedly, studying the mechanics of my body, gaining some ground, managing better. And then, sooner or later, I get hit by a combination of things I didn’t manage to guard against and can’t easily fix, and then there can be some very tough days.

I find it difficult to accept that there might not be a solution. I suspect one of the kindest things I could do for myself would be to accept that there might not be a solution. There might not be a way of avoiding this. There might not be some perfect combination of foods avoided, exercises done, supplements taken, relaxation practices and so forth. It may be that this is what happens to me.

Talking about it is difficult because there’s usually someone who wants to tell me what they think I should change. That I should be gluten free, or not eating anything from the tomato family, or that I need to take something, or not take something, do more or less of something. I find this exhausting. I find the assumption that I would be well if only I did the thing depressing. I do try really hard with this stuff, all the time. I pay attention, I experiment. There’s only so much control I’ve ever been able to get.

No doubt, offering advice feels like being a good and helpful person. But, for the person who is struggling, it can be just one more thing to have to carry, or fend off. It’s a way of saying yes, this is your body and you live with it day to day but I reckon my two minutes of thinking about it means I understand it better than you do. That’s demoralising at best. Unsolicited, unwanted ‘help’ can have the effect of grinding a person down. And if you don’t know all the details and aren’t a qualified medical person, the ‘help’ can do more harm than good.

It would be more helpful to me to have affirmation that it is not my fault that sometimes my body malfunctions. What I do find helpful is the emotional support to take things gently. The encouragement to not blame myself. Permission to just have some time off and not have to be all the things. Kindness is good. And letting me be the one to say ‘no, there’s nothing I can do with this today’ is far more empowering than trying to fix me.


Grief and Identity

This autumn I entered into a grieving process for the many things I had not previously been able to grieve. I’m not sure which is the chicken and which is the egg here – whether I can do this because my sense of self has shifted, or whether my sense of self has shifted because I’m doing this. Either way, it’s a feedback loop.

When I couldn’t grieve, it was because I didn’t feel safe to do that. My emotional responses might well bring more misery down upon me, affirming the impression that everything wrong was basically my fault. There were so many things I experienced as my fault, even though I had no control over them. Every shortcoming and imperfection, every innocent mistake, the limitations of my body, and how that body looked. I grew up thinking I was a bad and unloveable child, that I could never be good enough and that unless I was hyper-vigilant about everything, I would do something awful.

Grieving is not only allowing me to process those experiences, it’s allowing me to rethink my own story. As I grieve for my child self, I’ve been able to think differently. I wasn’t entirely awful – I was largely trying to be good. Having now parented someone myself, I have a different perspective on what can reasonably be expected of a child. As someone who teaches, I’ve learned the importance of holding space in which it is safe to make mistakes. Deliberate malice and cruelty are the only things worth getting angry about, and most children don’t do more than dabble in it as they try to figure out what’s acceptable.

I’m in a process of re-writing my story about the kind of child I was. I wasn’t a bad child. I’m not convinced any young child can be ‘bad’. They’re just learning and making mistakes.  I wasn’t a lazy child, and I don’t think it’s necessary or good for children to be super-motivated to work and achieve. It’s ok to want to be a child, to want to play and mess about and be silly. There’s a lot to be learned from mucking about. I wasn’t a fat child. I’ve got some old photos of me and I’m the same size as other kids. I was continually fat shamed. That’s not ok. It still wouldn’t have been ok if I’d been fat.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to justify my existence. Trying to make up for being inherently inadequate and unloveable. Trying to atone for being a bad person.  I’ve invested so much time and energy in trying to be good enough, trying to prove something about my worth so as to turn off the flood of self-hatred that has always been within me. All I ever needed was to be able to consider myself adequate and tolerable – it’s a pretty low set bar.

So I grieve for the little girl who had trouble learning to skip, and who just wanted to draw trees the way other kids drew them, and who wanted to be able to mess about during the holidays. I grieve for the child who was constantly afraid of being punished, and who just wanted approval and for someone to say ‘you are fine as you are’. I grieve for the unwinnable setup of having to get the best marks but being told off for getting too big for my boots if I made anything of it. I grieve for my wedge shaped Minnie Mouse feet, my arms like  a baboon, my rats teeth,  my singing like a cat, my funny-looking face, my fat, unloveable body. I grieve those stories, and what they did to me, and who I’ve been as I’ve lived with them as an adult.

I had a beautiful moment last week when it dawned on me that I grew up listening to, and adoring Steeleye Span. Child me did not sing like a cat. Child me sang like Maddy Prior.


Softening the body

One of the notions that comes up in the Tai Class most weeks, is of softening the body. Relax into the posture. Soften. It did not take me very long to realise that this is a significant issue for me. I’m not physically soft. Often I’m very tense. Pain, anxiety, inflammation of tissues, and whatever else is going on in here conspire to make me stiff and tense. What would it even mean to become softer? What would I need to do in order to achieve that?

To make things more awkward, there’s a lot of stuff in my history around being told the state of my body is my fault. That I’d be healthier and experience less pain if only I could learn to relax and put some effort into that. Oddly, I’ve never found that being blamed for being tense has helped me shift towards being less tense. There was always a subtext of how I would be more useful to someone else by this means, also.

I have a lot of trouble letting go. I’m not emotionally present or expressive in most contexts. I may be making an effort not to let my face show what I’m feeling. I’m not good at opening myself to other people, or letting people touch me.

Softness would mean acceptance – largely of myself, to some degree of others. It would mean trusting people not to hate me or hurt me if I let them in close enough.

I can soften in terms of being kinder to myself. I’m exploring that with craft projects at the moment – slowing down, being gentler with my hands. If I’m not pushing hard all the time to get more stuff done, if I can drop pace with the typing, take more breaks from the mouse and keyboard, that helps with pain with in turn helps with stiffness. Taking care of me takes time, and to have that time I need not to feel under massive pressure to be doing things that don’t help me.

Trying to soften my body seems to call for a heart softening towards myself. Not seeing my body as a means to other people’s ends, not letting anyone treat me as a tool to use and not a person. Holding a sense of self-worth that allows me to be kinder and gentler with myself. Dealing with pain kindly, not pushing through it to be useful.

It’s turning out to be a complex process, but I’ve achieved odd moments of feeling myself soften –physically and emotionally. I have a long way to go and this might well be a rest-of-life sort of project. I realise that being softer would also mean being kinder to myself about the timescales in which I can make those changes. I have to ush out of my head the several people who have shamed and berated me for not being other than I am. They were never trying to help, they were only ever feeding the problem. Experiencing a genuinely kind and supportive space focused on physical activity has taught me a lot about how unhelpful some of my historical experiences have been.


Delayed grief

There was never time. There was always someone or something else that was more important. Bills to pay. People to appease. Bullied for mourning the death of a friend because the person I was living with at the time felt that as a personal attack. Told there wasn’t time for me to cry when I lost my home and had to pack my stuff. The things I was not allowed to mourn. The things I did not realise at the time that I deserved to grieve over – harm done to me that I had been persuaded was my fault and no more than I deserve.

Grief isn’t just for bereavement. What I do know from studies into bereavement though, is that grief you don’t deal with at the time will haunt you, and reappear in unexpected shapes and be harder to deal with.

So here I am, and there’s a lot of it. I have carried this a long way. In my mind, in my body. There are so many implications, and so much I need to work through so odds are I’ll be talking about this on and off for a while. Hopefully there’s someone else out there who will find it useful.

What I’m noticing at the moment is the massive shift in thinking that allows me, for the first time, to see myself as entitled to grieve. I’ve stopped framing my distress as a failing on my part. It’s so often been framed that way for me. The idea being that what was happening was fine, and what was unreasonable was my response to it. Things that hurt me, were hard for me, frightened me, and stole away my confidence were not things I deserved. I was never that bad a person (is anyone?). “That’s not fair” was a statement I was not allowed to make for too long. Well, it wasn’t fair, and I can say it now, and in doing so change how I think about my former self.

It wasn’t ok that I was afraid for so much of the time. It wasn’t ok that my feelings were mocked and treated as irrelevant. It wasn’t fair that I wasn’t allowed to have preferences or to express myself, or to have any and all emotional expression treated as emotional blackmail. It wasn’t ok to be put in situations that made it difficult for me to sleep, and it wasn’t ok that my sleep problems didn’t matter. It wasn’t ok to have things that should have been at least a bit about me arranged entirely for other people’s benefit.

I have lived with rage directed inwards and self-hatred because of how I’ve been de-personed and made responsible for what was done to me. I’ve lived with shame and fear, and stories about how the very nature of my body justified what was happening to me. I’ve lived with unspeakable, un-acknowledgeable grief that has been crushing me for pretty much my whole life. I’ve lived feeling unable to talk about it because I don’t want to make anyone else uncomfortable and there are people who, if they read this, could feel uncomfortable. But unless I square up to all this, I can’t change anything. So here, in this space that is my space I am making some room to assert that there a great deal of things in my history that really weren’t ok.

I’ve been giving myself permission to feel angry about this. It’s been a personal sort of process, I will not take that anger to anyone else, to do so would serve no purpose. But I can be angry for me, and for the person I was and the person I could have been. And I can grieve it, and keep saying that it was not justified, it was not my fault, I did not deserve it.


Introvert time

It’s been a big issue for us as a household this year. Ironically, while I’ve done a really good job of talking to my son about how he needs to keep an eye on his need for introvert time, I have entirely failed to factor this in for myself.

Part of the problem is that none of us really fit the normal model for introverts. Not least because we all have varying needs for extrovert time as well. Of the three of us, I think I’m the most extrovert. I need time with people. Some days I need spaces with lots of people. I need stages and audience and performance opportunities and attention and I revel in all of that. If I don’t get a sufficient amount of out there and extroverted time, I get sad.

At the same time, if I don’t get enough introvert time, I get sad. Silence, or quiet. Not speaking for hours. Reading, crafting, disappearing into my own head. One of the great things about my household is that we’re all like this so we can be around each other, and still be having our needful introvert time. I can’t usually do this with other people.

Over the last year, my working life has been much more people orientated. I did quite a lot of office work – which was people-laden. I’ve been doing events work for a local venue, which is hours of full on people-orientated stuff. We’ve been going out and doing book events, and steampunk events, and poetry nights and that’s all full of people, too. I’ve not been thinking about how this balances out, or what I might need for me.

I don’t know what the necessary equation is here. I’m a perverse enough creature that it probably changes all the time anyway. At the moment, my need for silence and retreat is massive. I’m going with that.

If there are neat boxes for people to fit into, I invariably find I need to spend time in both boxes, and time dangling awkwardly in the middle. I struggle with how people are divided up and labelled. I’m rational and emotional. Logical and intuitive. Introvert and extrovert. From a certain perspective I may only be consistent in my inconsistency. It’s difficult to know how to ask anyone to work with this – especially when I’m in retreat mode and not really inclined to people. I need to turn inwards, to reflect, and be separate. And no doubt, even while that inclination dominates me, I will have days, or hours, or odd moments of being totally people-orientated and it will be confusing for me as much as for anyone trying to deal with all of that.

The biggest thing for me at the moment is a refusal to be tidy and convenient. I’ve done so much trying to fit in. I am the square peg for so many round holes, and I don’t want to pare myself down to fit anymore. I want the space for my own awkwardness, for my untidy emotions, for just how cold my reasoning can be, for my inability to do small talk, my lack of natural capacity for making empty, conciliatory noises, my inability to just go along with things. I can’t face trying to fit in any more, and I have pulled away from almost every place where I might have to do that. It gives me more room to breathe.

At some point, my inner tide will turn and I’ll come back in extravert mode, and I think I will still be awkward, over-emotional, uncooperative, untidy… and I have no idea how that will play out because it may be a good deal less quiet… unquiet even.


Love and understanding

One of the stories we tell each other around romance is that your true love will understand you. They will get you. If a person doesn’t get you, it seems like they are not your true love, or worse still, that they understood what you meant and didn’t bother. Leading to the two great clichés of hetronormative relationship  – the woman who says ‘I’m fine’ when really she isn’t, and the man setting out to have an affair with the words ‘my wide doesn’t understand me.’

In my experience, understanding another human being in any relationship, takes time and effort. You have to really listen to them, and you have to be open to the many ways in which they are not just like you. We find reassurance in similarity, to the point where some people will ignore difference rather than admit it exists. However, when we refuse to explore those differences, we shut down any real scope for mutual understanding, and the perfect love who understood us won’t turn out to be that at all.

What if we told each other stories about love involving a willingness to work? What if true love is the quest for true comprehension? What if understanding was something we built together for the rest of our lives? What if, within that we even had room to change, grow and re-negotiate? What if we didn’t feel threatened by not currently being able to understand someone we love? What if figuring that out looked like an adventure, not a threat?

I can’t count how many times people have told me that significant other people in their lives didn’t understand them. And every time, there’s been a feeling of total unwillingness to even try to fix that. As though working to fix it somehow defeated the object.

I’ve spent most of my life feeling like a bit of a social outcast. I’ve never expected anyone to understand me, and at this point I see this as a tremendous asset. I’ve always expected to work at things. I have found that many people do not share these expectations. With the ones who do, it is possible to form deep bonds and powerful states of mutual compression. Where there is no expectation that understanding will magically happen, there’s also more resilience if either party changes in any way.

I’m tired of stories that present love as something effortless and suggest that effort implies it isn’t real love. I think we need to change this. And they all dedicated themselves to doing what it takes to live happily ever after – even so they weren’t always perfectly happy because life doesn’t work like that. But mostly it was good, and they took care of each other and did not take each other for granted.


The power to choose how we respond

There’s a popular line of wisdom that goes ‘we always have the power to choose how we respond’. For general purposes, it’s a useful line of thought. Often, when we have nothing else, we do still have power over our own reactions. What we say and do in response to circumstances is ours to decide, and how we act throughout an experience is our choice.

Except when it isn’t.

This failure to recognise what happens when you no longer get to choose how to respond is really unhelpful for people who experience that.

You don’t get to choose how to respond unless you are able to move or express yourself in some way. There are many physical conditions that can take some, or all of that away. You may still get some choice about what you think, but there are also illnesses, accidents and experiences that can rob you of this, as well.

Panic attacks are not a choice. Hiding them is feasible for some of us sometimes, but not for everyone. A severe panic attack takes away your choices about what you can do and say, think and feel.

Conditioning – which is most likely to happen in an abusive and controlling situation – takes away your ability to choose. If pain and fear have been used to train you to react in certain ways, you don’t have the freedom to choose your responses until you have first dealt with the conditioning.

Everyone has a breaking point. For all of us, there is scope for experiencing more than can be coped with and breaking down in a way that means there is no choice about much of what we do. Anyone can be driven mad by excesses of horror, and suffering, by gaslighting, by sleep deprivation and other forms of torture.

Not having the power to choose how you respond is a terrible thing to have to deal with. We do not have to add to that by repeating the lie that we all, always have the choice of how to respond. Sometimes there are no options available. Sometimes minds and bodies are too broken for choice to exist.